Art With Teeth
By its very nature and definition, the Divine is beyond human experience and comprehension. Thus one of the main purposes of any spiritual practice — whether communal worship or private meditation, whether ecstatic celebration or penitence and fasting — is to expand our vision beyond ourselves and our own limited spheres of understanding and experience. The same is true when we study the wisdom of ancient spiritual masters, or search the natural world for markings of a divine hand. We are plagued with questions and doubts, and we are hungry for answers. It is revelation that we are seeking: the unveiling of truth as-yet-unseen, and reality beyond the tiny scope of our own vision.
History has shown that art can be the bearer of soaring spiritual truth and profound revelation, but at least within my own Christian tradition, much of what passes for “spiritual art” these days is really neither art nor spiritual. The painting, the music, the poetry, the dance — both artworks and their creators have been shackled by rigid demands to be bland and inoffensive. There is no risk, no spark, no tooth, just a steady plodding repetition of what we already know and believe. If all we want is a comforting reminder, then perhaps we can be satisfied with the mind- and soul- numbing insipidity of such “spiritual art.” Perhaps if we grow exhausted and defeated enough, we will not even mind that our deepest fears are met with saccharine platitudes, and our soul-searing questions with worn-out dogma.
We do get beat up sometimes, but the human spirit is fierce and hungry and curious, and I think in the end many of us are deeply unsatisfied with such toothless songs and stories and images. If we come to a place where we really want art to be a source of profound revelation and a sacred pathway to the Divine, then we must allow it to be gritty and toothy and unpredictable. In other words, we must allow it to be genuine art — and genuinely spiritual.
The process begins by offering our artists genuine freedom to seek, explore, and experiment in their work. The process of creating good work, whether sculpture or poetry or drama, necessarily involves taking artistic risks and pushing social boundaries — and young or timid artists in particular may need to be challenged to stretch beyond what feels easy or comfortable. Although not every piece will be suited for exhibit or performance in every venue, it is important to protect the process of creation so that the work has space to grow and develop according to the artist’s vision. We must embrace and encourage such artistic freedom, and trust individuals to set their own moral and ethical limits as they go about discovering the work they are called to create.
Equally necessary is the establishment of both excellent form and honest content as the standards by which we evaluate a work of art. Every aspect of an artwork communicates something to its audience; this is why song lyrics come to mean something slightly (or significantly) different when the melody is changed. A work of art will not become a source of genuine Divine revelation if its primary message is that it feels good to look at pictures of charming English cottages surrounded by gardens in full bloom. It really isn’t possible for a painting to address one’s deepest inner hunger and perfectly match the couch, for the simple reason that human beings are significantly more complex than upholstery patterns. As long as we’re looking for things that feel good and look pretty, that’s exactly what we will get.
Finally, we as listeners and viewers and readers and audience members must remember that art will not always provide passive entertainment; often we must put forth some effort to engage with it. That may include laying aside our existing prejudices against a particularly toothy art form, such as abstract painting or heavy metal music; or it may involve a willingness to engage with uncomfortable or challenging content. Sometimes we will need to educate ourselves ahead of time, or take the time to read a written artist statement. Our investment won’t always end when we leave the gallery or concert hall, either. In the days and weeks afterward, it may be necessary to spend some time in earnest contemplation, as we wrestle with our own doubts or questions that were raised by the artwork.
In the end, that’s the only way that art can serve as a catalyst for genuine revelation and a doorway to the Divine. It may be a stretch for us — as artists, as audience, as people of faith — but nothing short of it will satisfy our hunger, or stretch our vision beyond the tiny scope of what we have already seen.